Imagine for a moment that you are handed a tiny tropical island. You have to create shelter for your children, build methods of getting to and from civilization, provide food and water, and do it all by building everything yourself. Sounds daunting doesn’t it? Well, for some of us, like Jaimie Mantzel, that sounds like the most fantastic challenge possible. Perhaps you’ve heard of Jaimie Mantzel from his Giant Robot Project, or you are familiar with the awesome six legged walking robot toy he invented.
If you follow his YouTube channel, you know that he moved to Panama with his family, bought two small islands, and is slowly and with great determination building himself a Maker’s island paradise.
“I’m thoroughly loving life down here,” says Mantzel. “I feel like I’m playing a video game where I’m slowly building my way through a technology tree, and every step gives me new capabilities.”
Those capabilities include a huge homemade house boat, water reclamation systems, solar electricity, and more.
Ever dreamed of living on an island and making nearly everything for yourself? Here’s how Mantzel and his partner Dashaina Gibbs make life work on their island.
Power for the Home
Solar panels on the roof of Mantel’s house boat provide 5000 watts of power. Half of the panels run an inverter to provide AC power. The other half provide DC power to run power tools.
Power for the Workshop
Mantzel found that most power tools use universal electric motors, which can run on either AC or DC power. He plugs his power tools directly into the panels. On a sunny day he can run an electric chainsaw with no problem.
Water and Food
Mantzel has two water collection systems. On the house boat rain water is collected from the solar panels, which fills a 200 gallon tank inside the boat. Another 200 gallon tank on the island fills from a canopy with a trough made from PVC pipe.
Gardening and Gathering
Mantzel and Gibbs grow sweet potatoes, lots of herbs (basil, oregano, etc.), tomatillos, and leafy greens. They are hoping to have bananas, and papayas soon, as well as several other fruit trees that will take a while to mature. They harvest coconuts from their smaller island, and are planning to grow more on their larger island, too.
As an alternative to their electric stove for cloudy and rainy days, Mantzel and Gibbs made a wood burning rocket stove.
“Rocket” stoves are efficient and burn hot. They used a large aluminum pot for the main barrel of the stove. The horizontal pipe is fed with wood and provides air flow. It is connected with a 90 degree bend to the vertical pipe, where heat and smoke rise. The pot is packed with earth for insulation. A grate or some rocks are placed on top to support a cooking pot or pan.
To provide internet connectivity, Mantzel installed a radio antenna on the roof of the house boat, which is pointed at a tower 15 miles away. It’s fast and reliable.
Mantzel’s two islands are only about half a mile apart, so he’s planning on putting a parabolic dish on each island and aiming them at each other. If two people stand in the right places they’ll be able to have a conversation while half a mile apart as if they were standing right next to each other. There may be a small delay between speaking and being heard, but in principle this should work.
Mantzel found a big satellite dish to use as the mold for making the fiberglass dishes.
Mantzel built a house boat for his family to live in while he works on their island home. The huge catamaran’s lower deck is living space and includes sleeping areas, a kitchen, play area, storage and work surfaces. The two fiberglass pontoons are big enough to stand upright in, eight or nine feet tall. Mantzel and Gibbs each have one pontoon for themselves. Mantzel’s is typically packed with his tools and various projects in progress.
Mantzel designed lots of open space. You can basically stand up everywhere and you don’t need to duck to get between different areas.
Just about everything inside was handmade, including the cabinets, counters, and cubbyholes. The dinner table was made from planks Mantzel cut with a chainsaw. Even the kitchen sink was custom made from fiberglass.
The kids’ room has space for both girls to sleep and a play area. There’s a small fan to stay cool at night and a light for reading. Outside on the rear deck is on open area with a canopy for shade and an enclosed toilet to one side.
The second deck is where Mantzel does a lot of his construction work. The overhead solar panels provide both shade and power for his tools.
Third floor is mostly solar panels, but there is a small platform to stand on so they can reach the internet antenna.
Solar Powered Boat
Although the large catamaran Mantzel and his family live on has plenty of solar power, it lacks motors and must be towed. It’s impractical to move for a shopping trip into town anyway, so Mantzel built a smaller catamaran to get around in. This electric boat uses 1750 watts of solar panels to run two electric outboard motors. Mantzel built the outboard motors himself by modifying two scrap outboards and building custom bodies to extend further into the water.
He even designed and 3D printed the propellers himself.
Mantzel likes to run, but on the island there is really no space for this. So he built a pedal powered boat for when wants some exercise.
Mantzel needed a way to transport concrete, so he began work on a “super construction boat”. The craft will have two pontoons for sleeping, a crane, heavy hauling capabilities and a small crows nest. A bunch of solar panels will drive slightly bigger motors than he used on his transportation boat. Eight golf cart batteries will store power for when the sun isn’t cooperating.
Canal, Wharf, Floating Dock, and Draw Bridge
Mantzel laboriously dug out a canal through the shallow mangrove-choked approach to his island. It is deep enough now to allow him to pull the house boat into the entrance of the canal, so that it is somewhat sheltered from waves and wind.
Much of the dirt Mantzel hauled out of the canal went into building a wharf along one side. The wharf is raised about six feet above the original level of the ground and varies from six to ten feet wide. It is about 80 yards long, and ends at a fiberglass drawbridge to reach the island. The bridge was built from fiberglass pipes Mantzel made. It provides an uninterrupted path from the island to the wharf all the way to a floating dock he built near the entrance of the canal.
Mantzel applied his fiberglass skills once again to make a a modular fiberglass dome for dry storage. Materials like concrete and fiberglass need to be kept dry until they are ready for use.
Mantzel made a fiberglass toilet on the boat house. Waste is piped out into the mangroves where nature can recycle it. Gibbs is building a composting toilet on the island. This is basically a hole in the ground with car tires placed over it and a toilet seat on top.
Mantzel is building a concrete wall all the way around his island. From the water line the concrete wall will go up about ten feet to the island’s highest point. Then he’ll fill in to get the entire island to that height.
Mantzel is experimenting with making concrete-like walls by mineral accretion to a metal surface. You basically connect a piece of metal to the negative on a battery, and another plate to the positive and place them in the water. He says it’s tricky getting it to make a solid sheet.
Future Island Fortress
The ten foot high sea wall will continue up another ten feet to form castle walls complete with crenelations and a walkway on top. Mantzel plans to build four towers (one for each member of the family), which will become their main residence.
If the mention of trampolines sounds odd, you might find it interesting that Mantzel once had a trampoline as the third floor of his home!
For his tower, Mantzel wants a tall water slide, trampolines, and bungee cords to jump around with. He also wants an observatory. Sounds like a fun way to live!